The majority of couples who come to therapy complain about a lack of connection in their relationship.
They want to feel more engaged with one another. More intimate. Closer. As the therapist, buying into this narrative is enticing. The subsequent sessions are spent proposing solutions aimed at increasing the likelihood that the couple will experience what they claim to want.
And the solutions are generally simple enough. Have a morning check-in. And evening tea time once the kids are in bed. Greet one another with a smile after work. Hug until relaxed. But, time and again, they “don’t work”. The couple mysteriously doesn’t follow through on the solutions in spite of their relative simplicity. Or, the couple does follow through, but claims that they aren’t enough.
The seeming inadequacy of these solutions reflects, I believe, the need for both partners to experience themselves as separate and autonomous individuals. As such, they might do well to consider the possibility that what they need to focus on in their relationship is being more separate, and not more connected.
The Reality Of Separateness
It is axiomatic that we all exist as separate beings. We have our own bodies – bodies that can never be occupied by another person. Within our bodies, we have our own thoughts, views, experiences, assumptions, wants, opinions, interpretations, desires, moralities and histories.
In the arena of intimate relationships, however, our culture emphasizes connection. There is a pressure to always be happy with one another, to always be sexually passionate, to always be filled with love, to always want to be around each other.
In order that we might make this “happily ever after” a reality, many of us unwittingly sacrifice our personal integrity – those things that make me, “me” – when they are in conflict with those things that make you, “you”. Said another way, we make a concerted effort to leave our separateness at the door in the pursuit of an unbridled experience of connection.
For a time this produces positive results. We really feel as though we ‘get’ one another and as though we’ve found our person. Unfortunately, it is not an adequate long-term strategy to fulfilling and nourishing relationship.
Our Separateness Doesn’t Go Away
Deny our separateness though we may, it will not – because it cannot – simply disappear. As discussed above, it is a fact of life. And the fact that we are separate beings will be expressed one way or another. When we are unwilling to make the activity of separateness conscious, it gets expressed unconsciously.
In other words, when we put all of our conscious investment into connecting, the role of separateness is taken on by the unconscious.
And our unconscious is usually not too skillful. Its solution to reclaiming an experience of separateness is to create problems in the relationship. We find things about our partner that we don’t like, or we behave in ways that our partner is guaranteed to not find appealing.
We rely on these complaints and behaviors to justify – to ourselves and to our partner – our taking space. We have an unconscious investment in not resolving these complaints/patterns. We need them because, again, our separateness needs to be expressed.
This explains why all of our conscious efforts to create and foster connection never seem to work the way we want them to. We could have the connection we seek, so goes the story, if only our partner were different. But, at the same time, we need the complaint so that we have good reason to be separate.
After enough fruitless effort at increasing connection, we may conclude our partner is simply not who we thought they were and so we move on.
Which is, of course, the utter manifestation of separateness!
Identify your favorite complaint about your partner. “They are too needy.” “They are too distant.” “They aren’t as attractive as I thought.”
Now, consider the view that you are invested in this complaint. The complaint is serving a necessary function. When you complain, you likely withdraw. Or attack. In either case, the outcome is increased distance.
Consider thanking your partner (even just in your own mind) for giving you an apparently adequate reason to take the space that you are unwilling to take conscious responsibility for.
Expressing Separateness Consciously
To summarize to this point, we don’t get the option of not expressing the truth of our separateness. Because of the pressure to only be close, most of us relegate our separateness to our unconscious, where it gets expressed in oftentimes problematic ways. Eventually, these problems can become so toxic that they give us justification for moving on from our partner. (This isn’t to say that all relationships should never end. Sometimes it truly is best for each partner. It’s just nice to know how much of it is the result of what might be considered ‘neurotic’ behavior and how much of it is based in reality.)
The solution to this unfortunate pattern is to risk taking conscious ownership of our separateness and expressing it overtly. This is most often done through saying “no”, setting boundaries and asserting needs. In all circumstances, we are manifesting as a separate individual. We are leading with our personal integrity as our highest priority.
When we take conscious responsibility for manifesting as a separate individual and for claiming the space we need, we no longer need to rely on problems to get us the space. We can therefore drop the drama of having a problematic relationship or a problematic partner.
Paradoxical though it may sound, the counter-intuitive mental move of replacing the emphasis on connection with an emphasis on separateness may actually give us the space we need in order to connect.
The more we feel and experience ourselves, the greater the electricity and depth our subsequent connection will be. After all, we need to be separate in order to connect in the first place.
This work is counter-instinctual. Although it is certainly possible to do without outside support, a therapist can help to accelerate the process. If you are interested in learning more, follow the button below.